Arts, Missions, and The Alamo

Driving west as a family, we decided to visit The Alamo, one of America's most famous stories of courage in the face of impossible odds and certain death. Sam Houston called out "Remember the Alamo!" in a battle afterwards, which eventually led to the annexation of the state of Texas in exchange for the life of President General Santa Anna.

The Alamo holds special fascination for me, because it is one of America's most famous examples of foreign missions. Franciscan missionary Father Antonio was determined to bring the gospel to Native Americans living by the clear waters of what was renamed the San Antonio River. At first, he led worship services in thatched huts but soon built the large chapel and buildings now known as The Alamo, and developed fields for farming and livestock. Over the following years, four more missions were planted downstream. The guide told us The Alamo was secularized when the job of missionaries was "done," turning the Native Americans into obedient Spanish subjects and the Native American village into a colony of Spain. The Alamo became a military outpost.

The sad story is all too common in missions history. Missions led to colonization led to military outposts, a progression that led Japan to kick out all missionaries for over 250 years and close the country to foreign influence.

In the early morning, I ran to Mission Concepción, the first mission south of the Alamo, and was struck by its appearance. It seemed more like a castle than a missionary outpost! Could not something smaller suffice? Were there not only a few living in the area? A cynical person may call the buildings a power play, but I personally found the beauty of the buildings moving. Inside, the walls and ceilings had at one time been decorated with beautiful paintings. Music, paintings, sculptures, and carvings helped display the beauty and glory and awe of God, attracting Native Americans and everyone else.

"As I go through Mission Concepción, I have lots of questions. What were my ancestors thinking when they saw this beautiful church and heard the music? Can you imagine how their hearts must've been beating with anxiety?" (Estella Kierce, Native American, National Park Service website)

Arts in mission is an extremely powerful tool for starting churches in foreign lands, and that tool needs to be used wisely, with care to separate one's own culture from the gospel message. Let's "Remember the Alamo!" and the lessons it has to teach.

The walls and towers of Mission Conceptión rise like a castle above the grounds near the San Antonio River.


Dr. King, Gospel Music, and Creative Suffering

Japanese black gospel choir singing at our HIDDEN BEAUTY arts conference last October. Watch the video here.
(In the beginning, Yuko and Abi explain in Japanese about the "hidden" message and power of gospel music. I recommend starting at the 10-minute mark.)
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis fifty years ago on April 4, 1968. On that same day earlier this month, MLK50 events celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. King took place all over the city. You could feel excitement in the air everywhere, reinforced by police escorts zipping famous people around the city, blocked-off streets, and a lot of security. All month long, we as a city have been talking about Dr. King in social media, schools, churches, and around dinner tables.

I attended the MLK50 conference put on by the Gospel Coalition in the convention center downtown. Four thousand people attended and apparently one million saw it online. (You can watch plenaries and panel discussions online. Speakers emphasized African-American theology of redemptive suffering, which teaches that God will use the unearned suffering of African-Americans for some greater purpose. In the conference, I realized that God is already using the Middle Passage, 250 years of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racism, and ongoing disparities among the African-American population to bring healing and to spread the gospel around the world, especially in the country of Japan.


During the Civil Rights era, Dr. King led nonviolent protests in order to address issues of injustice. He called this a "creative" approach to suffering, rooted in the cross and designed to bring a redemptive outcome. In the famous "I Have A Dream speech," Dr. King said:

"I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of CREATIVE SUFFERING. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive." (emphasis mine)

Nonviolent approaches to suffering stem from a long heritage of "creatively" engaging suffering. In fact, African-Americans artists have been doing this from the very beginning through song.

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, Nobody knows but Jesus.
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, Glory, Hallelujah!

Slaves responded to injustice and suffering by singing songs of unquenchable hope in light of the cross. "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen" sings of personal "trouble," while also clearly pointing to Jesus, the one who suffered on our behalf. As a result, suffering is redeemed allowing for the praise and glory of hallelujahs. This is one of the best examples of faith that God works through our suffering. "We'll Understand It By And By" also affirms the belief that God will bring good from suffering. We cannot understand why we have so many trials, but this must not lead us to despair but rather to trust in God that he will make a way out of no way and "lead us to that Blessed Promised Land."

Trials dark on every hand, and we cannot understand
All the ways God would lead us to that Blessed Promised Land;
But he guides us with His eye and we'll follow till we die,
For we'll understand it better by and by.

And when the prophet Jeremiah asked the question, in utter despair, "Is there a balm in Gilead?" (Jeremiah 8:22), the African-American slaves responded with an emphatic, "Yes!" They changed the question mark into an exclamation point! As one of the speakers, Mika Edmondson, put it, "Here we see a positive belief in the dawn which uses the midnight of life as a raw material out of which it creates its own strength. This was the growing edge of hope that kept the slaves going amid the most barren and tragic circumstances." (Mika Edmondson. The Power of Unearned Suffering. Lexington Books: Lanham, 2017, 37) Slaves found hope and healing in the gospel through their creative response to suffering.

There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead, To heal the sin-sick soul.

During the Civil Rights era, Dr. King led nonviolent protests in order to address issues of injustice. He called this a "creative" approach to suffering, rooted in the cross and designed to bring a redemptive outcome. In the famous "I Have A Dream speech," Dr. King said: When we faced tremendous suffering along the tsunami-stricken northeast coast of Japan seven years ago, it was natural to bring in gospel choirs. The clear message of hope amidst suffering completely changed the atmosphere of every shelter, church, outdoor venue, and public venue we sang in.

"Let's Gospel!!" Advertising for one of our gospel concerts in the tsunami-stricken region of Japan.

When we brought our first gospel choir from Memphis to Japan 13 years ago, we were frequently asked questions like, "Why is black gospel so popular in Japan?" This popularity has only grown over the years to include other art forms such as hip hop, an art form born out of the suffering of African-American urban youth. (You can see Brazilian missionary JP and my son Aidan do hip hop street evangelism here.) I believe the popularity of gospel music in Japan is rooted in its clear message of hope. Rather than ganbatte kudasai, "Keep it up! Don't give up!" the message powerfully becomes "There IS a balm in Gilead. You can be healed! You can become whole!"

Like thousands of others in Japan, O-Chan and his wife Asami both became Christians through black gospel choir ministry in Japan. O-Chan is now training to be a pastor, and he intends to continue to work with black gospel music to spread the gospel and plant churches in Japan. You can read about their story here.

Abi translates for O-Chan and Asami at the Global Missions Conference in Dallas last November as they spread the message to thousands about the power of gospel music in Japan.
God is working through African American artists to creatively engage suffering with the gospel. This is the arts in mission. This is God working through African American suffering to bring a message of hope and healing, spreading the gospel to millions around the globe. May God continue to to bring this message of hope to the people of Japan.


Japanese Friends Visit

At the end of March, two of Eastin's friends came to visit us in Memphis to celebrate their graduation from elementary school. They got to see a NBA Grizzlies Game, ride a tractor and horses, sleep in a tent, and...something they could never do in Japan...shoot a rifle!


Coen Teaching Koto

Coen and Abi are showing a group of children at a missions conference about the koto, a Japanese harp.


Urushi and the Gospel

I share about the Japanese art of urushi and the Christian gospel at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Missippi on February 11, 2018.


Whisperings on the Wind Devotional

On a hill overlooking the town of Otsuchi in Iwate, there sits an old-fashioned glass-paneled white phone booth. Inside, an old black rotary phone lies on a wooden shelf, connected to nothing.

Itaru Sasaki placed this phone in the middle of a beautiful garden he designed with trees and flowers, ornamented with a goldfish pond, a bridge, a statue, a bench, and a nearby stone cabin he built for reading and meditation. “My thoughts could not go over regular phone lines,” Mr. Sasaki said. “So I wanted them to be carried on the wind.”1

Mr. Sasaki created the “Telephone of the Wind” to help his own grieving process with a lost family member, but the very next year, the tsunami came which took the lives of thousands of people in the surrounding coastal areas. The telephone booth became a special place where people would talk to lost family and friends. A notebook by the phone provides a place to write what is hard to say. A sign directs people to listen to the sound of the wind, ocean, and birds. It helps them process their grief and pain, and to say goodbye.

This phone became one of the most famous visual pictures of grief along the tsunami-struck coast of Japan. When I went and visited it first hand, I found it to be a beautiful symbol of prayer, a prayer room in the middle of a large prayer garden. It reminded me of the Holy Spirit.

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Wind blows our hair and brushes our skin. We cannot see it, but we can feel it moving. We see the effect of the wind which lets us know that it is there. In the same way, we cannot see the Holy Spirit, but we can feel the Spirit and see the effect of the Spirit in the lives of others.

Visitors to the Telephone of the Wind may not be praying to the God of the Bible, but as a Christian, I can see their prayers of lament through the lens of faith. Where is God in our grief? The Holy Spirit is the great comforter who is always present. We are always in the presence of God and able to talk with him, even though we cannot see him. The Holy Spirit is always there to hear our calls of pain and loss.

The wind reminds us that the Holy Spirit is always near, especially in our pain.


1 This American Life, Episode 597: “One last thing Before I Go.” September 23, 2016. This story first appeared on a television broadcast by NHK Sendai.


Concert Tour in Tohoku

Pictures from our Community Arts Christmas Tour in the disaster area of Japan